Ethics and profits — the elephant in the room

Posted: August 18, 2014

One of the key drivers of decision-making in society today is the role of ethics in business. Ethics is a realisation by both business and the public that there is more to a commercial enterprise than profit-making.

Ethics derive from a desire to do good. The reason ethical businesses are no longer a “nice-to-have” but an imperative is that society no longer ignores how profits are made and used by business.

For an industry that jealously protects self-regulation like the advertising industry does, the role of ethics is paramount. Not only is it critical to shaping the image of our industry in the eyes of our stakeholders, it is simply the right thing to do.

Inherently proper

In other words, we have to play fair and do good, not because society is exerting pressure on us but because it is inherently proper to conduct our affairs with integrity.

From a business perspective, doing good means meeting the following requirements:

  • being values-based, ie values such as honesty, integrity and fairness are non-negotiable
  • practising fair trade
  • upholding fair-labour practices
  • respecting the people we serve
  • respecting the environment (sustainability)
  • contributing towards addressing social issues

A critical analysis of our industry requires us to ask the following questions:

  • How many businesses in the advertising value chain have incorporated the above requirements in their performance scorecards?
  • Do our clients and partners respect the contracts we have with them? Sometimes, clients are known to bully agencies, particularly when it comes to payment terms and billings. Many small agencies constantly face the risk of closure, thanks for cash-flow issues beyond their control.
  • As agencies do we charge fairly? Are we always honest and diligent when it comes to billings and time management, as well as quality control? Agencies that do this well manage to hold on to client relationships for decades.
  • What role do our clients play in making the world, from which they rightly derive profits, a better place? Do they respect the environment in which they operate or is sustainability relegated to the bottom of the priority list? There is absolutely nothing wrong with profit-making; the issue is profiteering.
  • Are our clients serious about fighting social issues?

All these questions impact not only upon decisions regarding whom we choose to do business with, but also the kind of work we sell to our clients.

Huge influence

As agencies, we have a huge influence upon the communication our clients put out and, therefore, we need to have ethical marketing at the top of our agenda. Driving ethical communication is thus a shared responsibility between agencies and clients.

As agencies, we also have a role to play in addressing social issues.

We can make an impact upon structural economic issues such as unemployment, skills development and fair labour practices. We must support and develop small business. We must prioritise skills development and skills transfer.

Many agencies have established internship programmes in addition to other training programmes. These are key to improving the skills base in our country. A lot is being done to support small business in the advertising value chain, but more can be done. As an industry that is more susceptible to down-sizing than most, we have to be vigilant around labour issues. We also have to get better at career management. Our industry can very easily become the envy of all if we address these issues.

Quality costs more

Our suppliers, read “production houses”, often accuse us of being heavy-handed at when it comes to time and money. They argue that they need more time for the creative process and that quality costs more. Our clients, though, want work yesterday and they are tough negotiators when it comes to money.

As the ham in the proverbial sandwich, agencies end up appeasing the client by pressuring suppliers for favours. Favours are a part of life; however, it is not okay for favours to become the norm.

Nor is it fair for clients to put agencies in this compromising position. It undermines our ability to be ethical.

All agencies subscribe to a set of values and an industry code of conduct. A quick desktop study of agency websites yields the following universal values: respect, honesty, fairness and integrity. We have to guard these values with our lives if we are to protect agencies against abuse.

Our nation needs healing

In a country beset with a high crime rate and all the complications that come with years of racial discrimination, what are we doing as communicators to nudge the social psyche in the right direction? Our nation needs healing.

All is not well with us, and advertising can help with this.

This is not to say society is helpless and mindless, and therefore can be hypnotised into thinking all is well.

Advertising can, nevertheless, help individuals make personal choices that are for the greater good. We’ve done it before. We’ve helped society cope with post-war and post-recession times. We need to double our efforts in helping heal South African society.

Respect whom we serve

Lastly, as agencies, we have to respect the intelligence, the cultures and the values of the audiences we serve. No agency can ever claim to be adequately endowed with consumer insights. It’s an ongoing effort. This is the single biggest driver of our image as an industry and must therefore be a top priority in our pursuit of creative excellence.

Ethical business is profitable business. It pays to do good.